Alternative Therapy: A Holistic Way to Health
Kelly Izdihar Crosby
Have you ever gotten a massage? Or enjoyed a warm cup of chamomile tea on a sleepless night? Have you ever tried yoga or tai chi? If so, you have used one of the many treatments that are part of alternative therapy. Before the advent of modern-day medicine and technological advances in science, alternative therapies were the standard for managing health issues. Every culture, no matter where it was in the world, developed its own methods of treating illness and maintaining health.
There are many reasons why people seek out alternative therapy. According to the article “Complementary and Alternative Therapies” on WebMD, “[m]ore than 30% of U.S. adults use health care that’s outside of mainstream Western medicine.” Some want to pursue a more holistic approach to health, while others see alternative therapy as environmentally friendly. In an article for JAMA, John A. Astin states, “[T]he majority of alternative medicine users appear to be doing so not so much as a result of being dissatisfied with conventional medicine but largely because they find these health care alternatives to be more congruent with their own values, beliefs, and philosophical orientations toward health and life.” Therefore, it’s best to think of alternative therapy as a complement to conventional medicine.
Since alternative therapies have roots in every culture, there are a vast array of traditional practices to choose from. Acupuncture is known worldwide, and it is an integral part of traditional Chinese medicine. The treatment involves inserting very thin needles into the skin at specific points on the body. There is typically a slight dull pain at the base of the needle, but this pain usually subsides. After the needles are inserted, they stay in place for between five and thirty minutes.
The number of treatments depends on the individual and the acupuncturist’s recommendations. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) states, “Results from a number of studies suggest that acupuncture may help ease types of pain that are often chronic such as low-back pain, neck pain, and osteoarthritis/knee pain. It also may help reduce the frequency of tension headaches and prevent migraine headaches. […] However, clinical practice guidelines are inconsistent in recommendations about acupuncture.” The NCCIH advises against using acupuncture instead of seeing a conventional health care provider.
Cupping therapy has been the subject of renewed interest. Another alternative therapy found in traditional Chinese and Middle Eastern medicine, it involves placing cups on the skin to create suction to facilitate blood flow and promote healing. In an article for Healthline, Ashley Marcin says, “Cupping increases blood circulation to the area where the cups are placed. This may relieve muscle tension, which can improve overall blood flow and promote cell repair. It may also help form new connective tissues and create new blood vessels in the tissue.”
There are two types of cupping treatments: dry and wet. Dry cupping uses suction and involves putting heated cups onto the skin. The session usually lasts between five and ten minutes. With wet cupping, the cups are placed on the skin for a few minutes before they are removed. Then, a small incision is made to draw blood, and another cup is suctioned onto the skin to draw out the blood. Wet cupping, or hijama, was a highly recommended treatment by the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him [PBUH]):
Narrated Abu Hurayrah, the Prophet (PBUH) said: The best medical treatment you apply is cupping. —Sunan Abi Dawud, Book 28, Hadith 3848.
Cupping may reduce pain, but be advised that dry cupping may come with burns, mild discomfort, and bruises. Rare cases of anemia due to repeated wet cupping have been documented. Consult your doctor before starting a cupping regime, and always choose a licensed massage therapist or acupuncturist.
Herbal medicine is the use of medicinal plants for treating ailments. It has been part of traditional medical practices for millennia, and we derive many of our conventional medicines from plants, such as aspirin from willow bark and morphine from the opium poppy. Herbal medicines can come in pills, powders, lotions, creams, tea leaves or bags, or oils. Here are some examples:
The Prophet (PBUH) spoke of the healing properties of black seed, the seeds of the Nigella sativa plant:
Abu Hurairah narrated that he heard the Messenger of God (PBUH) say: “In black seed there is healing for every disease, except the Sam.” “Sam means death. And black seed is Shuwniz [Nigella].”—Sunan Ibn Majah, Volume 4, Book 31, Hadith 3447.
The herbal medicine industry is currently booming. According to the article “Herbal Medicine” by Andrew Vickers et al. in the Western Journal of Medicine, “[c]onsumer spending on herbal products in the United States is estimated to be more than $5 billion per year, mainly from self-prescription of over-the-counter products.” The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates herbal supplements as food rather than medicine. Because of this, herbal medicines are not tested through clinical trials or have the same standards as prescription drugs. The article “Herbal Medicine” from Johns Hopkins Medicine says, “Many prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines are also made from plant products, but these products contain only purified ingredients and are regulated by the FDA. Herbal supplements may contain entire plants or plant parts.” Before starting an herbal medicine regimen, seek the expertise of a trained herbalist or naturopathic doctor and speak to your physician to make sure any herbal supplements you take don’t interfere with your current medications.
Chiropractic medicine is also a popular alternative therapy. Chiropractic medicine primarily deals with diagnosis of the musculoskeletal system, particularly the spine. The procedure involves the chiropractor using their hands or a small instrument to apply a brief, controlled force to the spinal joint. This is called spinal manipulation. Clinical studies have found little evidence that chiropractic medicine is an effective treatment for health problems other than low back pain. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies chiropractic care as safe when executed correctly by licensed professionals, but you should check with your primary care physician before making an appointment. Leanna Skarnulis at WebMD asserts, “People who have osteoporosis, spinal cord compression, or inflammatory arthritis, or who take blood-thinning medications should not undergo spinal manipulation. In addition, patients with a history of cancer should first obtain clearance from their medical doctor before undergoing spinal manipulation.”
Other alternative therapies fall under the umbrella of relaxation therapy. According to the National Cancer Institute, relaxation therapy is a “type of therapy that helps reduce muscle tension and stress, lowers blood pressure, and controls pain. It may involve tensing and relaxing muscles throughout the body.” These involve a variety of different methods, such as deep breathing, visualization, meditation, tai chi, yoga, massage, biofeedback, and aromatherapy.
What’s great about relaxation therapies is that they are easily accessible, and some are inexpensive. Anyone can search online for tutorials on yoga or tai chi. Spas offer therapeutic massages, or you can do a self-massage. Deep breathing exercises can be done at home, at work, or in transit. You don’t have to wait until you become ill to implement them, either. Integrating one or more of these relaxation techniques will add many health benefits to your life. An article by Mayo Clinic Staff on the Mayo Clinic website notes a few different benefits of relaxation techniques, including improved digestion, maintaining normal blood sugar levels, mood and sleep quality improvements, and increased confidence in one’s ability to handle life’s problems.
When deciding to try alternative therapies, make sure you are working with licensed professionals. Acupuncturists should be certified through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). Depending on state regulations, acupuncture can be performed by medical doctors who specialize in traditional medicine, nurse practitioners, or physical therapists. Licensed massage therapists and chiropractors can also provide acupuncture and cupping services. Chiropractic doctors usually have four-year undergraduate degrees and four years of chiropractic school training. Currently, there are no certifications or licenses offered for herbalists. However, you can choose an herbalist from the American Herbalists Guild.
Alternative therapy can be a great complement to modern medicine. If you have an interest in alternative therapies, most doctors recommend combining them with conventional therapies. Please consult a medical professional before starting.
Kelly Izdihar Crosby is an artist and freelance writer living in Atlanta, GA.